Fraud Investigation: Perspectives on Interviewing

John McNally


As a student in the business program at Vancouver Island University (VIU), I had the opportunity this spring to combine a course in accounting fraud, which I had just taken, with the ‘Many Faces of Fraud’ conference in Toronto in May. I took advantage of this opportunity because I wanted to explore working in this field and I thought the conference would help me make this decision.

Unlike most twenty something students, I am a twenty plus twenty something student working towards my third professional career and my fourth degree. My last profession was as a clinical psychologist and my last job was as a psychologist within a federal penitentiary. Having said this, I would now like to combine my thoughts on both the course I took and the conference I went to, with my experience in working in a forensic setting with criminals. Specifically, this short paper will address interviewing skills from a theoretical, experiential and finally clinical perspective. The hope is to augment the excellent work that is already being done in the field of fraud investigation with a fresh perspective from a different yet paralleled vantage point.

Accounting Fraud Theory

Although the course I took on Fraud at VIU combined a wealth of theoretical knowledge with a series of guest lecturers, I will focus on the information provided in the Accountant’s Handbook on Fraud and Commercial Crime (AHFCC).

Chapter 17 of the AHFCC (Kroll et al, 2008) describes in some detail the interviewing process which begins in the preparation phase. The AHFCC lists three parts to this phase. The first part is ‘Making a Plan’. The plan includes reviewing all relevant documentation, determining who needs to be interviewed and then structuring questions to solicit answers to required areas of concern. The second part is ‘Organizing Documents’. While all relevant documents have been reviewed, a specific interview in a specific area requires that relevant documents be organized and available for easy access during the interview. This process often includes flagging relevant pages and making notes on specific sections. Finally, the third part of the preparation phase is ‘Gathering Background Information’. Reviewing personnel files and asking supervisors and fellow employees about the perspective interviewee allows you to obtain relevant background information about personal issues that might be of concern, financial pressures he/she might be under and other personal information that may be used to build rapport (Kroll et al, 2008).

At this point you are ready to conduct the interview. The AHCC (Kroll et al, 2008) suggests that establishing rapport with the interviewee, – making them feel at ease, should be the initial goal. Achieved largely through seeking out common ground, rapport eases the interviewee into the process. Questions are then asked in a sequence that places close ended, factual data collection questions at the front end and more difficult, open ended and revealing questions in the middle. Finally the interview is concluded by ending on a positive note, allowing the interviewee to ask questions or make statements about something that wasn’t asked and telling them that they may need to be called back for a subsequent interview. In addition, the AHCC (Kroll et al, 2008) also highlights about the process of an interview discussing issues such as questioning techniques, note taking and learning to read body language.

The Conference Experience

The 2 day conference on ‘The Many Faces of Fraud’ was as enjoyable as it was informative. While topics ranged from Pandora’s Box (Issues in Investigations) to The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (a mock fraud trial); for the purposes of this paper I will limit my comments to two specific presentations that relate to interviewing. The first was Paul McLaughlin’s ‘Getting the Most out of Your Interview’ (2008), and the second was John Pynik’s ‘Elicitation’ (2008).

Getting the Most our of Your Interview

Mr. McLaughlin is an expert in media interviewing and not unlike fraud interviews the bulk of his work is designed around getting people to disclose information. Consistent with the theoretical aspects of interviewing, he emphasizes the importance of preparation and anticipating the flow of the interview. He talks about establishing rapport and what he terms the three P’s; preparation, persistence and politeness. While some interviewees will try to obfuscate around questions being asked, Mr. McLaughlin suggests that persistence in a polite and calm tone will assist you in getting the information you want.

Mr. McLaughlin’s presentation is largely about the underlying structure of interviewing, like using silence and tone to your advantage, and the art of listening deeply, staying focused and offering follow-up questions. He mentions defusing angry interviewees by first matching their tone and volume, and then lowering the volume and slowing the pace. He highlights the use of body language and the difference between open and closed questions. These techniques along with paraphrasing and clarifying add to the smoothness of the interview that in turn makes the process of gathering information more viable.

For those of us who have done interviewing we will see immediately the advantage of this approach. Although structured, in that certain questions need to be asked, it is also loose enough to travel down pathways left open by the conversation. Mr. McLaughlin’s video clips demonstrate both the right and wrong ways of doing interviews and provide a deeper understanding of the art involved in getting people to talk and offer information.


The second presentation I would like to discuss is John Pynik’s ‘Elicitation’ (2008). Mr. Pynik is a former CSIS intelligence officer, a securities exchange investigator for BC and a money laundering analyst for FINTRAC. Elicitation is the ‘art of inducing another person to talk’ (Pynik, 2008) and the techniques allow you to gather information without asking direct questions. Elicitation tries to never be confrontational and is used primarily as a way of getting at information without signaling the intentions of the interviewer. Obviously this process would be advantageous for fraud interviews that are questioning potential suspects and Pynik (2008) indicates that the techniques involved were designed to work with an individual’s natural tendency to gossip, show off and to underestimate the value of the information they are giving. Pynik goes on to state that these natural tendencies work because they tap into our natural curiosity, our need for recognition and the tendency to be unable to keep a secret. In short, we want to tell someone what we know, and the techniques used in elicitation simply make it easy for us to do that.

So what are these techniques? Unlike McLaughlin, who primarily offers techniques that are more concrete in nature, like paraphrasing and using silence; Pynik’s techniques or tactics are more about style. He offers 10 tactics to be used in elicitation. They are:

  • Appear innocent and Friendly
  • Play dumb
  • Exploit the natural tendency to correct others
  • Make a provocative statement
  • Plea for guidance
  • Use Flattery
  • Establish a quid pro quo
  • Make the conversation interesting to the target
  • Combine tactics
  • Close with chatter(Pynik, 2008)

The key to using these tactics comes down to the personal style of the interviewer. Primarily you must be a good listener and be empathic. You must have good interpersonal skills, be flexible and diplomatic, and be a quick thinker. Since the conversational style does not allow itself to taking notes, you must also have a good memory and be able to deal with various levels of abstraction at the same time allowing you to make connections and influence the future direction of the conversation.

A Clinical Perspective

Although it is obvious that the aims of interviewing from a clinical perspective are different from interviewing for a fraud investigation, there is also a tremendous amount of overlap with respect to how it is done. Much of the training I underwent both in university and in my practicum was consistent with the theoretical and experiential views expressed above. For example, the use of open and close ended questions, using silence and the importance of establishing rapport were discussed theoretically and practiced throughout my training to become a psychologist.

What I found interesting about the two presentations on interviewing at the conference is that they exemplified two different types of interviewing styles I have found common to psychology. The first I will call left brained in that it tends to favour logical, analytical, sequential and objective ways of presenting itself, and the second I will call right brained in that it tends to be intuitive, holistic, synthesizing and subjective.

Let me start by saying that both styles have their pros and cons and that virtually everyone uses them both. It should also be noted that both are needed in order to have a complete and good interview. The reason I bring them up at all is that as interviewers it is important to understand our own strengths and weaknesses that occur when we favour one style more than the other.

Since accounting is a largely left brain activity, it would not be surprising to find that this approach gains favour when we interview people. Both the theoretical material I learned in my fraud course and much of the McLaughlin’s presentation focused on this style. Although the techniques themselves can seem less structured then some of us would like, they nonetheless are structures skills that can be logically understood and practiced individually as a skill. The use of silence, for example, is presented as an interviewing skill because most people are uncomfortable around silence, particularly in an interview scenario, and will thus fill in the silence with more information. This can be practiced in everyday discussions and seems like a logical way to encourage others to talk. Essentially the left brain techniques are simply analyzing and structuring normal conversation and then using those techniques to strengthen the process of an interview.

Right brained activity in interviewing has more to do with the flow of a conversation. Like Pynik’s elicitation techniques, the interviewer must be empathic and a good listener and be able to think quickly. Right brained activity searches for a holistic picture, so rather than focusing on details, the interviewer uses the flow of the interview to probe different areas of interest by influencing the way the flow of conversation occurs. This is more of the art of interviewing and it requires significant concentration, the ability to juggle the concrete answers to questions with the emotional and psychological dynamic that are in play whenever one engages another. Although this is my preferred way of interviewing, I suspect most accountants, being largely left brained dominant, will be less comfortable with this approach. The advantage of this approach is that it tends to bypass many defense mechanisms and this, of course, tends to get a more accurate response to our questions. If the aim of a fraud interview is to get at the truth then elicitation techniques that focus on the flow of an interview and not just the content, can be critical to this aim.

My experience is that most interviewers go with a style they are most comfortable with, and this of course makes sense. My hope is that exposure to the advantages of a different approach will encourage us to expand the range of what we are comfortable with to include the best of the less comfortable, yet clearly advantageous, other approach.